Racism has shaped public transit, and it’s riddled with inequities
The same thinking shows up in system planning. In Oakland’s San Antonio — the most racially diverse neighborhood in the city, and one of the densest parts of the Bay Area — BART trains run nearly 3 miles without stopping. In suburban Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill, less than half as dense, BART stations are only 1¾ miles apart. BART was literally designed (in the late 1960s) to speed white suburban commuters past Black inner-city residents.
And then, to make choice riders feel comfortable, agencies use police. In Maryland, the immediate response to suburban residents worried about crime was local policing boarding 1,000 trains — which, in all, resulted in 14 citations and three arrests. Armed police are not the only way to keep riders safe. Regular transit riders know how good bus drivers can be at dealing with unruly riders and keeping their passenger safe, all without weapons or the authority to make arrests. Unarmed fare enforcement officers are quite effective, as are outreach teams that try to help, rather than punish, the homeless. Yet, across the country, transit agencies have been increasing police patrols on trains.
In 2019 — with crime at record low levels — New York City decided to add another 500 officers to the 2,500 already patrolling the subway. We know — from data and the experience of riders — that policing is racist. Police are deployed more often in Black neighborhoods, stop Black riders more often (only 12% of BART riders are Black, but 50% of BART police “code of conduct” citations are issued to Black riders), and disproportionately kill Black people. We have seen many instances of people of color being violently attacked by police for minor infractions like selling food on a subway platform. White riders are likely to see a police officer on a train as a comforting presence while many Black riders justifiably will perceive them as a potential threat.
These decisions may seem to be decisions about planning and operations. Fare structures can be useful ways to manage demand and account for the cost of providing trips. Crowding does work differently on short trips than long ones. Agencies need to be concerned about the safety of their riders. Too many stations do slow down transit. However, the way in which these decisions have been made often has had racist outcomes.
Transit systems have racism built into their schedules, their fleets, their route structures and their infrastructure.
Structural racism in transit agencies
Of course, many agencies also have racism built into their governing structure. Why do suburban areas often have separate agencies from their big cities? There are legitimate reasons for this, but it seems to happen a lot in areas where cities have largely Black populations and suburbs are predominantly white. In Detroit, not only do the suburbs have their own agency that excludes the city, but by policy those buses will not pick up Detroit residents as they pass through the city.
Every transit line, every bit of infrastructure, every bus that runs down a street and every train that runs down a track does so in pursuit of a motive. We can’t be neutral experts; we have to ask what those motives are. There are many — what I’ve talked about here is only one aspect of how transit represents larger political goals, and only one dimension of how race and transit intersect. For example, the elevation of the idea of transit as a development tool has put some transit agencies into the role of gentrifiers.
For example, one of the visioning efforts that prompted the construction of the Cincinnati Streetcar stated that “streetcars in other cities have been shown to bring new people to an area. Streetcars attract people who don’t ride buses. They are popular with young professionals, who tend to live in and near urban areas.” The neighborhood the streetcar serves is 70% Black, with a median household income under $15,000. The streetcar wasn’t designed to serve those residents — it was designed to displace them. There’s nothing inherently racist about steel rails, overhead wire and low floor articulated vehicles. But those technologies, like all technologies, can be used to racist ends.
Transit agencies absolutely can be powerful tools for equity. A good transit network opens up a metropolitan area — and its jobs and opportunities — for all of its residents. At its best, transit includes everyone. We can absolutely design a transit system that’s great for all people, whether they have access to a car or not. METRO, in fact, is working on that: the METRONext plan includes a program called “BOOST” that will transform local bus routes into faster, more reliable, and more comfortable service. It promises to dramatically improve the rider experience in places like Sunnyside. The plan also includes a reimagining of the park and ride network into a system of regional services that could better integrate with the local buses, run both ways all day, and serve more than just 9-to-5 white-collar commuters. Houston’s transit system could become a better experience for everyone.